In the last few weeks of my Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia, Andrew Cowan talked a lot about ‘exit velocity’. The idea was that we should emerge from the course with enough momentum behind our writing for our careers to take flight.
It was a compelling thought. I pictured my writerly trajectory, arrowing effortlessly skyward on beatless wings…
The reality, for me at least, was more like one of those Birdman competitions where you have to cobble together a flying machine that can carry you across a bay. You propel yourself off a pier and into the air, thrash your arms vainly at the sky for a few moments before the contraption folds around you, all integrity lost, and you are dumped into the sea.
After the course I put my novel in a drawer and returned to full-time work. Then, earlier this year, I got it out again and went back to school.
Whenever I tell people that I have an MA in Creative Writing, or that I am studying now as part of the National Academy of Writing, there are still a surprising number who ask: “But is that something you can really teach?”
Of course, there will always be those who are prodigiously talented enough not to need help from anyone else. But for the rest of us it is about putting in our 10,000 hours, taking lessons in craft and technique wherever we can find them, learning everything we can from the writers we admire. And what better way to do this than directly from the writers themselves?
At UEA, we were able to knock on the door of some of the country’s finest writers and get the benefit of their individual attention to our work: Andrew Cowan’s meticulous critical eye, Trezza Azzopardi’s interrogation of character, Michèle Roberts’ unbridled creativity and sufi-infused enthusiasm for solving the problems writers face (“Make the problem part of the solution!”).
Then there were the workshops, where we discussed and dissected one another’s work each week. As someone who was sharing my work for the first time, the feedback took a bit of getting used to. The passiveness, the aggression. The passive aggression: “It’s great that you use so many words”; “I love that it’s so easy to read”; “Now, this is supposed to be funny, right? I thought so!”.
Any writer knows the value of an engaged and trusted reader, so being able to live and work in close quarters with such a talented and supportive group of them was a fantastic luxury. Above all it was an environment that took writing very, very seriously, and forced us to take ourselves seriously as writers as a result.
I emerged from the course with the first half of a novel, a prize, and – thanks to UEA’s incredible links with a procession of visiting agents and publishers – some industry types who liked my work and wanted to see more. The problem was that I’d realised that the novel wasn’t going to get off the ground. There was too much excess baggage. There were structural faults that I couldn’t ignore. I needed to think again.
I first read about the National Academy of Writing in Prospect magazine. Leo Benedictus was writing about a new course that was using the conservatoire model, giving students one-to-one critiques on a single piece of work while the rest of the group looked silently on.
With its weekly workshops and invaluable craft sessions, the NAW course is designed to help advanced writers bridge the gap between writing and publication. And it can draw upon a remarkable line-up of visiting authors, patrons and industry professionals who have guided us through every aspect of the process – from completing a draft and getting an editor to publicity and cover design.
But it is the conservatoire-style masterclass that makes it unique. The NAW Director, Richard Beard, provides a close textual reading that forces you to take responsibility for every aspect of your work. Often nerve-wracking, sometimes uncomfortable to hear, his insights are pinpoint, unarguable, and always right on the money.
With the course coming to an end in a few weeks’ time, I am starting to get optimistic about ‘exit velocity’ once again. UEA taught me to read, think, and write like a writer. NAW is teaching me to complete my novel like one.
Dan Timms is a writer on the National Academy of Writing course 2011. Applications are now open for the 2012 course, with a deadline of 16th December.